“Nearly 55 million Americans -- and millions more worldwide -- are working in microbusinesses or freelancing; that's 35 percent of the U.S. workforce alone."
This quote comes from a 2018 Wise Brand survey which analyzed the freelance market across a variety of industries.
“The job market has experienced tremendous change within the last decade. Freelancers have not only grown in numbers but have also become savvier and more ambitious with most managing their own online marketing activity," according to Wise Brand CEO Orly Izhaki.
That's good news for freelance or self-employed designers looking to pick up and start fresh in a new market or location.
Being a designer has many upsides. We get to spend our days doing creative work, we have skills that are in demand, and we can make a comfortable living on what we earn for our services.
But perhaps the biggest benefit of all is the ability to work from wherever we choose. The nature of design -- graphic, web, UX/UI, app, etc. -- is such that all you need in order to work is a laptop and an internet connection. The result? A freelance life that is incredibly accessible to most designers.
Even for designers who prefer the stability of working for a single company and going to work in an office each day, design still provides mobility because the skills required are easily transferable to most markets. Though customs, culture, language, and compensation vary from city to city, state to state, and country to country, the work of a designer remains the same, and design expertise is in demand across the globe.
For designers who are starting out, or those looking to change specialties or move to a new location (the U.S. or otherwise), it’s useful to know what the employment trends within the industry are. Having this knowledge in hand can help inform decisions about where to live, what to specialize in, and how to develop your career.
The Design Industry In The United States
The U.S. is one of the top global locations for design work and is internationally known for high-quality design, generated both in-house for the world’s leading tech startups, and on the agency side for some of the most respected firms. Even though the U.S. design population faces some threat from cheaper outsourced labor, demand for quality and innovation in the increasingly competitive digital space helps keep jobs in the country.
Growth in graphic design is expected to be slow in the years to come. From 2016 to 2026, the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates jobs in the field will grow by only four percent. The stagnation in job growth for graphic designers will be driven mostly by the decline in opportunities in print media such as newspaper, magazine, and book publishing. The good news is that graphic design within the digital space is projected to grow 21 percent during the same timeframe, which means that graphic designers should focus their professional development efforts in this area.
The median salary for graphic designers in 2018 was $48,256, though salaries were much higher in top design locales such as New York and the San Francisco Bay Area. Roughly 20 percent of graphic designers in the U.S. are self-employed, which makes it one of the more freelance-heavy fields.
Multimedia Artists and Animators
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, multimedia artists and animators “ create two- and three-dimensional models, animation, and visual effects for television, movies, video games, and other forms of media.” In 2018, the median annual pay for those employed in this field was $53,406. More than half of U.S. multimedia artists and animators are self-employed.
From now until 2026, there is expected to be eight percent growth. That means that roughly 6,200 jobs will be created in the next eight years. This level of growth puts the field in line with projected average growth across industries in the U.S. Growth in the field is expected to be driven by consumer expectations of increasingly sophisticated and realistic graphics in video games, apps, and movies. Competition may increase as well, however, due to the widespread appeal of the industry among young students and graduates.
Website Design and Development
The Bureau of Labor Statistics doesn’t track web design specifically, but it does track statistics for web development, which includes web design services. Their definition of the role of web developer notes that “Web developers design and create websites. They are responsible for the look of the site. They are also responsible for the site’s technical aspects”
In the U.S., web development is projected to see 15 percent job growth from 2016 to 2026, which far exceeds the average projected job growth across all industries (seven percent). Median pay for web developers was $88,488 in 2018 according to Glassdoor, making this the highest paying of the design fields for which data exists. Much of the job growth in the field will be driven by the increasing adoption and popularity of mobile devices and e-commerce, both of which necessitate additional investment on behalf of companies in design and development services. In 2016 there were 162,900 web developers employed in the U.S. That number is projected to reach 186,700 by 2026.
Top Countries Around The World For Design
If you’re looking to take a more global approach to your design career, you may be interested in learning about the design profession outside of the U.S.
The United Kingdom
The U.K. is one of the world’s major design hubs, with many top-tier agencies based out of London and Glasgow. What’s more, the design field is growing at a rapid clip in the U.K. In 2017, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport (DCMS) released data that showed over 50% growth in the design field between 2011 and 2016. As of 2016, there are roughly 160,000 people employed in design jobs.
Although Canada has a relatively small population of such a geographically large country, it does boast a lively design scene. In Canada, as elsewhere, the need to streamline brand assets across many different media has put graphic designers, particularly those with skills in multiple design disciplines, in demand. Design jobs in Canada tend to be clustered in urban centers like Toronto, Vancouver, and Montreal. Toronto is home to 27 percent of Canada’s designers, and the city has the biggest design population in North America outside of New York and Boston.
China has an enormous population of devoted mobile users, which makes mobile design and development a top priority in the country. Shenzhen, in particular, has positioned itself to become a design capital, with funding to support startups in the area and its status as a Creative Cities network City of Design. Roughly 100,000 people are employed by 6,000 design firms in Shenzhen.
Sweden is a country known for design prowess, and it boasts many top-tier design schools and firms. Urban areas are home to many tech companies that provide opportunities for employment for those in the design field. The country is known for entrepreneurship and innovation. What’s more, Sweden is known as a tolerant and peaceful place with a high quality of living.
Japan has long since been known as a leader in technology, science and innovation. And with the country readying itself for the upcoming 2020 Olympics, it's full-steam ahead. With its intricate culture and slightly out-of-the-box adoption of web design trends and technologies, Japan is certainly a country industry that is both exciting and unique for designers looking to grow their talents and learn new ways of design. A hub for creativity and technological advancement, there is major room for exploration in the design industry in Japan.
The startup scene is thriving in Israel. In Tel Aviv alone there are over 1,200 startups, with over $6bn in funding in the past 12 months. This, combined with the high-tech mindset of the country, makes it a desirable choice for many in the design field.
So that’s a high-level overview of design jobs in both the U.S. and abroad, but what about city-by-city? Here are some of the top metropolitan areas for designers looking for both career opportunities and quality of living.
Berlin is known worldwide as a trendy cultural hub, and those qualities make it a desirable city for many designers. The city has a solid startup scene and a high density of coworking spaces for those designers hoping to live the freelance life.
Cost of living in Berlin is nothing if not reasonable, especially for a world-class city. A small apartment in the city will run you around $1,199 on average. Graphic designers can expect a median salary of $35,690 according to PayScale, while web designers and UX designers can expect medians of $42,670 and $54,545 respectively.
Though the winters may be cold, Toronto is still a great city to live the good life as a designer. The city has a lively startup scene and many Canadian companies are headquartered there, making jobs with exciting brands readily available. The city’s diverse population of nearly 3 million people helps make Toronto a lively cultural center, and Canada’s universal health care system eliminates the financial burden healthcare can have on freelancers.
Median salaries for designers in Toronto are reasonable, ranging from $34,273 for graphic designers to $42,842 for web designers and $68,547 for UX designers according to Glassdoor.
Another Canadian city makes the list. Montreal is a vibrant cultural capital which boasts surprisingly reasonable costs of living. The city is home to many Canadian startup companies and has a strong game design and development presence.
Median design salaries in Montreal are slightly lower than in other comparable North American cities, but a lower cost of living bridges the gap. Graphic designers can expect to earn median salaries of $34,923, web designers can expect $35,390, and UX designers $46,398 according to PayScale.
New York, of course, is an internationally recognized hotbed of design jobs and talent. Most of the top U.S. design agencies are based in New York and the city has made attracting tech companies to the area a top priority. Jobs in New York are abundant, which makes it an attractive destination for some of the best design talent.
Costs of living in New York are notoriously high, with the average rental cost of a one bedroom apartment around $2,800/month. To make up for high living costs, New York salaries are some of the highest in the country. The median salary for a graphic designer is $54,916. For a web designer, it's $63,196 and goes up to $94,498 for UX designers according to Glassdoor.
For the second year in a row, Boston was named the best city for entrepreneurial growth and a hub for startup success. In recent years, Boston has boomed as a startup capital through partnerships with IBM and the success of startups like Wayfair and Drizly. This, plus its potential for extreme technological advancement makes it a great place for designers to dive in head first and kickstart their design careers.
According to Glassdoor, the median salary for graphic designers is $52,429, the median salary for web designers is $61,687 and for UX designers it's $85,847. These numbers are roughly 10 percent higher than national averages, making Boston a solid investment for up-and-coming designers.
San Francisco Bay Area
It’s impossible to write a list of top design cities without mentioning the Bay Area. Even though skyrocketing costs of living have made it more difficult to afford to live in San Francisco, the area still attracts some of the top design talents in the world. Silicon Valley is teeming with companies in need of design talent, and many designers dream of working for the country’s most respected tech giants.
Median salaries in the Bay Area blow other cities out of the water, so designers looking to take home big paychecks may find it an attractive option. The median salary for a UX designer is upwards of $106,420, while for web designers it’s $75,415. For graphic designers, the median salary is $67,789 according to Glassdoor.
London is home to many highly respected design firms, and for designers building their careers in the UK, it’s certainly a top destination. The city is a cultural center teeming with art, music, literature, and history -- plenty of inspiration to feed the creative minds of designers.
Median salaries in London are very reasonable for those in design fields. Graphic designers take home median salaries of $42,080, web designers earn $37,927 and UX designers earn $57,532 according to Glassdoor.
A Note For Freelance Designers
Deciding to freelance is a fun and exciting endeavor, and as a designer, freelancing is more of a possibility than it is in other industries, and with the number of freelancers rising — more than half of the U.S. workforce slated to be working freelance by 2027 — now’s the time to get your affairs in order and maximize your value and capabilities.
Currently, 57.3 million people in the United States work freelance — from New York City to Seattle. That’s a big market to compete in. And if you’re in any of the above markets, that competition gets even higher. Of course, that’s because of the amazing benefits, cost of living and salaries that come with these areas. But that also means that you need to know a few things about being a successful freelancer.
1. Always draft a contract
There's nothing worse than starting a project without all the facts, figures and assurances. And if you're starting out, you might think it's ok to agree to an email agreement without and assurance that both parties will follow through with the deal. That's why it's important you draft a contract that stipulates the duration of the project, deadline and how much you will be paid.
Don't waste time creating and recreating PDFs for your clients to download, sign and scan back. Make the process easier on yourself by using tools like Contractly to send and receive contracts with your clients.
2. Don’t skimp on a clever portfolio
Portfolios are important. They showcase your talent and experience. They give your clients something to gauge your capabilities. And you shouldn't just stop adding to your portfolio because you've nailed a good gig.
A portfolio contributes to your professional self and shows you as a responsible and serious individual. It should always be updated. You never know when someone is going to want to see how far you've come, and a portfolio can show that progress which could be the deciding factor for a client.
3. Know your worth
Perform market research, ask colleagues and peers, and understand what you're worth. Don't give away your services for cheap just because you think it's the only way to get clients in the door! Your services are valuable.
You also don't want to settle for less than what you can really live off of. This means you need to calculate your minimum acceptable rate (MAR). You do this by adding up your business and personal expenses and dividing them by how many hours you wish to work. That gives you your MAR hourly rate.
Using your calculated MAR and market research, you'll be able to come up with the rate that you deserve.
4. Never stop networking
Just because you've landed a sweet setup doesn't mean its time to throw in the towel and stop growing your network. You never know when a professional relationship will end, and you don't want to be left floundering and searching for a new client because your old one disappeared.
Always connect with new people. You should be attending workshops, signing up for webinars and going to networking events to meet new people in your industry and expand your circle of peers. You never know when you might need to call in a favor.
5. Don’t be afraid to say no
Saying no can be difficult but sometimes it's necessary. You don't want to burn yourself out or take on more than you can handle. You don't want your work with some clients to suffer because you wanted to do it all.
You also shouldn't say yes because you feel like you have to if the pay isn't good or if the work doesn't inspire you. If you're not passionate about what you do, the work will ultimately fall flat. Saying no might be the better option in the long run because your name won't be tied to a project that flopped.
The Biggest Hubs For Design Work Around The World
The beauty of being a designer is that in most cases your skills are highly sought after. That gives you flexibility in terms of where you live and who you work for. If your goal is to freelance, you can live virtually anywhere you want and establish relationships with companies in top design markets. If you’re looking to settle down, then look for a city with a healthy balance of inspiring culture, job opportunities, and livable salaries.
If you're looking more broadly, some of the best countries to settle down in as a designer include:
These destinations are hubs for creativity, innovation and technological advancement. And they are home to some of the biggest cities for design which include:
San Francisco Bay Area
In each of these cities, you're guaranteed to grow and adapt as a designer while living your best life. Whether you're a freelancer, or a full-time salaried employee working in an office day in and day out, you need to know your worth and be confident in your experiences. And these tips are helpful for new or seasoned freelancers:
Write up a contract and stick to it with every client
Keep growing your portfolio and make sure it's compelling
Calculate your worth and don't forget it
Keep on networking
Don't be afraid to take a stand and say no
With these tips and statistics, you'll be one step closer to nailing your next design job in the city of your dreams.